It’s more than just a question of taste. I know many literati who will happily say that a book or a play made them want to puke, but we take for granted that they don’t really mean it. My own reactions to words are usually more muted, more accommodating. I try to finish reading every book I start, and when I don’t – for reasons of time, or maladroit disinterest, or the extensible-yet-ultimately-finite span of library loans – I feel a vague shame in the corners of my mouth, like I’ve let the author down somehow.
These symptoms are literal. I had never read Philip Roth before, and while the book (my surface-consciousness has blocked out which one) had an off-putting angst of the polemical about it, there was no one thing which I could point to and say “see, this has made me ill”. It was violent too, a wrenching of the intestines that sparked great shuddering coughs; the body’s attempt to expunge what foreign object had lodged within my (by this time very) nervous system. I couldn’t get past Chapter 4. There have been other instances too, what I call “textual anaphylaxis” for its suddenness and ferocity, but none as severe as that first instance. There are, as I see it, no correlations of form, subject or tone between my allergens, which has rendered somewhat problematic my attempts at inoculation.
While rare, its consequences can be profound. What if I had been forced to read Roth as part of my studies? Who takes responsibility if a student vomits blood in class: the author, or the teacher who thought “allergic to the book” was a puerile attempt at absenteeism? Those who write are often responsible for their words, whether they expect it or not. Our words are still less likely to ignite claims of medical negligence than libel suits or fatwas. But when we write, our duty of care goes both ways. Just as words can sicken, they can also heal.